Neil Humphreys: Give Croatia some respect
Forget underdogs tag, French must fear Modric's marvels
Throughout the week, giddy interviews in Moscow's Red Square gave the game away.
Face-painted England fans spoke of a final date with France. They were already there. Football was coming home. Cue the music.
The Croats murmured stuff about having Champions League winners in their line-up, but they were mostly ignored. They didn't fit the popular narrative. But the French supporters knew. In every Red Square TV interview, they were unanimous in their wishing thinking.
They wanted England in the final. The Three Lions were young and inspiring, but limited and beatable. Croatia, on the other hand, were an uncertain commodity.
Croatia feared no one. Croatia could defeat France on Sunday.
All week long, that was the rational thinking in Les Bleus camp, but they appeared to be in a distinct minority.
Indeed, the lack of respect towards Croatia has been mind-boggling, the finalists often written off as ageing underdogs.
Real Madrid's Luka Modric and Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic treat silverware the way a fishing trawler treats Bluefin tuna and yet Jordan Henderson was tipped to silence the duo with his one-man band.
The slavish devotion to England's plucky crusade unfairly overlooked Croatia's equally admirable journey to their first final. Modric and his teammates accused England-centric journalists of a lack of respect. At times, the coverage gave the impression that the Three Lions had one foot in the final.
Modric channelled the media's indifference to spur his nation to victory, but Croatia already had the talent, temperament and tactical nous to give them a real shot at the trophy.
Gareth Southgate and his waistcoats deserve praise for bringing the flat-lining Three Lions back from the dead, but Didier Deschamps would still rather face the well-dressed Englishman than the wily Zlatko Dalic.
Southgate turned England's fortunes around in two years, but Dalic worked his miracle in a matter of months. He arrived with one qualification game left to save a tanking campaign. And he did it.
He also outmanoeuvred Southgate in the semi-final. He used Marcelo Brozovic to cancel out Henderson and relied on Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic to eventually push back Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier.
MODRIC THE CONDUCTOR
Croatia's wingers were dead on their feet by the end, but their underlying objective had been achieved - to free the master.
England did not have a Luka Modric, nor do France for that matter. Les Bleus have younger, faster players, but Modric has the quickest brain on the block.
He's an elegant 32-year-old timepiece surrounded by ten-dollar stopwatches. He plays the game on Modric time, a faultless conductor of precision and rhythm.
He won't be able to catch the likes of Kylian Mbappe, but he'll slow the pace around him until he's in sync and in control.
And yet, inexplicably, Modric has rarely been discussed in the same reverential tones reserved for Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mbappe, even though he guided Real Madrid to Champions League glory in May.
At least Dalic realises that coaches are lucky to get one authentic legend in their lifetime. He even picked Modric against Iceland, when qualification was already assured, perhaps recognising that the orchestra can't play without the blond guy with the baton.
With Rakitic in support, Modric has encouraged Ivan Perisic to find his Inter Milan form. The World Cup's most experienced midfield trio have slipped into their groove just in time for France.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic can outwit any opponent in a shoot-out. The undervalued Mario Mandzukic has started scoring again and even Dejan Lovren has picked an opportune time to go from comedy clown to colossal centre-back.
Croatia are the smallest nation to reach the final since 1950, but such a statistical oddity should be perceived as a strength. Adversity is an easy bedfellow for Dalic's men.
Three consecutive knockout victories after extra-time are indicative of a feisty nation that only came into existence in 1991. Just seven years later, they reached the semi-finals - with a population of four million.
No other small country has achieved so much so quickly or made more of their raw materials. And yet, ridiculously, a team dipped in midfield stardust and dripping in silverware were considered underdogs against Southgate's kids, who barely had a trinket between them.
Not surprisingly, Croatia savoured their semi-final revenge. Modric's men view this tournament through a mafia-like prism. They don't take kindly to those who show disrespect.
The French would be mad to make the same mistake.